Toward a Global Parliament

Toward a Global Parliament

An institution representing citizens, not states, would advance world democracy.


Global sentiment overwhelmingly rejects the Bush doctrine and its antidemocratic assertion of an American right to dictate collective security unilaterally. Faced with the prospect of a looming war in Iraq, millions around the world took to the streets in protest, sadly with little discernible effect. Now, in the aftermath of the war, those who are serious about promoting a world order that is democratic, equitable and sustainable must consider why so much popular energy produced such meager results and how such energy can be more effectively harnessed in the future.

First of all, it is important for peace forces to advance beyond protest and rejectionism. The global peace-and-justice movement urgently requires its own alternative vision. But beyond this, we believe that this is one of those times when concrete steps for global reform should be proposed and acted upon. A positive vision of world order and the future of the United Nations should be as bold in moving toward global democracy as the Bush Administration’s vision is in advancing its plans for global dominance.

Specifically, we suggest introducing into the global arena an institution that enables citizens to participate directly in the world political process regardless of their geographic location: namely, a citizen-elected Global Parliamentary Assembly (GPA). The struggle against American unilateralism will gain strength to the extent that the peoples of the world find ways to have their voices heard.

At present, there is no consistently effective way to counter the ability of US leaders (or leaders of any other states, for that matter) to mobilize the citizens and resources of their states for purposes at odds with the rules of international law. The world order remains a global system of states rather than laws when it comes to peace and security. Only when citizens are given an institutionalized site of struggle in the international system and citizen politics is allowed to operate beyond the confines of sovereign states is it likely that new sources of authority will gradually emerge.

A GPA would strengthen the international system by creating a new democratic core to that system. Vertically, the global parliament would derive legitimacy and power from its direct, unmediated link to the world’s citizenry. And horizontally this new democratic body would be uniquely qualified to oversee and link the currently disjointed system of weak and disparate international organizations. It is important to realize that the UN as currently constituted is a club of states as represented by governments. How different from the Security Council debate on the prospective war against Iraq would have been a discussion representing the strongly held views of citizens.

What we are suggesting is neither a pipe dream nor a grandiose scheme for world government. Its prototype already exists regionally in the form of the European Parliament. Established in 1957, the European Parliament is, along with the Council of the European Union and the European Commission, one of the three lawmaking bodies of the European Union. In the early days, delegates to the Parliament were appointed by national parliaments, but in 1979 citizens began directly electing representatives. Though it started life as a largely advisory body, its character as the direct representative of the European citizenry has created an inexorable momentum toward empowerment. As a result of the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties over the past decade, the Parliament now has veto power over approximately 80 percent of European Union legislation. Additional powers are envisioned in the constitution for the European Union that is currently under consideration.

Like the European Parliament, a global parliament could start modestly and develop incrementally. It could be established initially in various ways, including as an initiative by a vanguard of democratic governments willing to act as “world order pioneers.” As few as twenty to thirty geographically, culturally and economically diverse countries would be enough to credibly launch this experiment in global democracy. So as to defuse resistance from apostles of the status quo, following the example of the European Parliament, its powers could be advisory during its early years.

Once in place, a global parliament would, it is hoped, over time increase in influence and reputation. The election process would by itself insure a distinctive institutional identity. Citizen groups would be encouraged to petition the global parliament to pass resolutions supportive of their positions. Those opposed to the policy preferences of these citizen groups, whether industrial lobbies, labor unions, states or other citizen groups, would likely be unwilling to concede to their opponents the legitimacy of the only popularly elected global body. Instead, they would likely come to participate as well. It is even possible that nationalistic critics and policy-makers hostile to global democracy would be inclined to participate and put forth their own views. As groups found in the parliament a transnational civic space in which to work out their differences, the center of political gravity could subtly shift in the parliament’s favor. Allowed for the first time to participate in the international lawmaking process directly, the organized citizenry would tend to become institutionally committed to the GPA and invested in its activities.

As soon as the parliament begins functioning, citizen groups from countries around the world could exert pressure on their governments to join in the venture. Once a critical mass of membership was reached, even authoritarian governments might find it politically awkward to deny their citizens the right to be represented. At some point in its evolution, the parliament’s formal legal powers, as well as its relationship with the UN, would have to be worked out and augmented by a constitutional process. Perhaps it could, alongside the General Assembly, become part of a bicameral global legislative system that would supplement the Security Council as the organ of the UN entrusted with primary responsibility in the area of peace and security. Whatever its precise legal evolution, the process of discovering and legalizing the role of the GPA would itself encourage a worldwide debate on the shape and substance of global governance.

This evolutionary process would take many years, possibly several decades. During this period, the parliament could still exert a benign moral influence that would complement the work of existing civil-society monitors and activists. By holding regional hearings, issuing reports, responding to citizen petitions and passing resolutions, the GPA could gradually introduce a greater measure of popular accountability into existing global institutions and help inform world public opinion about threats to human well-being neglected by states.

The mere establishment of a global parliament would be a welcome step, giving hope in a dark time. Taking such a step would signal the emergence of a democratic and peace-oriented alternative to achieving national security through domination and recurrent warfare. In a global parliament, delegates would not represent states, as they do at the United Nations, but rather the citizenry directly. As occurs in other multinational parliaments–such as in India, Belgium and the European Parliament itself–instead of voting along strictly national and ethnic lines, many delegates would come to vote along lines of interest and ideology. Thus, shifting transnational coalitions seeking the peaceful resolution of international disputes might be able to discourage political leaders and their publics from a reliance on armed conflict, and over time this might slowly lead to the withering away of war as a social institution. At the very least, the global climate would become more receptive to serious disarmament initiatives.

Likewise, the GPA would offer disaffected citizens a constructive alternative to terrorism and other forms of political violence. Those alienated by perceived injustices or by global silence about their grievances would no longer have to choose between surrender and the adoption of desperate tactics. Instead, they would have a legitimate international forum in which they could at least be heard and perhaps find enough support to achieve peaceful redress. Citizens would be able to stand for office, champion candidates and form coalitions to lobby the parliament, a process that would bring those with diverse or opposing views into a give-and-take setting that would improve the chances for compromise and reconciliation. Those whose views did not prevail would likely be more inclined to accept defeat out of a belief in the fairness of the process, and with an understanding that they could continue to press their cause on future occasions.

Of course, the brand of religious extremism associated with September 11 is decidedly antidemocratic in outlook. It is reasonable to question the ability of a parliament to successfully absorb supporters of Al Qaeda and groups with comparable agendas of violence. A salient feature of the liberal parliamentary process at its best, however, has been a capacity to assimilate even those who do not share a pre-existing commitment to democracy. Because a parliamentary process allows for participation and has the ability to confer popular legitimacy on a policy position, experience suggests that even those with extreme agendas will often be drawn into the process–though they may voice dissatisfaction with it and be frequently discouraged by the results. Most aggrieved people in the world, however, are neither ideologically antidemocratic nor naturally prone to extremism and, therefore, given democratic options are much less likely to resort to violence. It is notable that Israeli Arabs continue to value their participation in the Knesset and that Sinn Fein has felt the same with regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Of course, the Osama bin Ladens of the planet will never accept the legitimacy of a global parliamentary process. But their ability to attract a significant following might well be substantially diminished by the presence of such an institution, especially if the legitimate grievances of peoples around the world were being consistently addressed with an eye toward the realization of global justice and the promotion of the rule of law.

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